Childhood Memories in Grim and Green

INTERVIEW. Though he won't be graduating from the National Film School’s editing programme until summer, Thor Ochsner's directorial debut, "1989 (When I Was 5 Years Old)", has already been selected for two major film festivals this winter, Sundance and Rotterdam. A "reconstruction," the 26-year-old filmmaker calls his intensely personal first short film.

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1989 (When I Was 5 Years Old). Framegrab

Five-year-old Thor is driving with his dad to the airport one evening to pick up his mother, when an accident happens.

I researched car accidents and ambulances and downloaded around 500 clips. I also found images of the same kind of car we were riding in.

This car accident is the premise of the story Thor Ochsner has elected to tell now, 21 years after the fact, in a short film mixing animation, documentary and fiction. The filmmaker handled his research in a rather unusual way, modelling the film's structure over YouTube clips.

I Had to Tell it 

One evening, 18 months ago, Ochsner is editing a film when a message pops up on his screen. "Do you know Ole Duus Hansen?" it reads, stopping him dead in his tracks. That's his father's name. Why would anyone ask him that? Catching his breath, he returns the message and two seconds later the answer comes back, "I'm your half-sister, Signe." Ochsner grew up a single child with just his mother, so finding out he had a sister was quite an adjustment. When he met her two days later, he found out he has three other siblings as well.

"I was really over everything about my dad. I was doing fine. But when my half-siblings found me, I had to tell them what happened to our dad and do it right," he says. "The best way was doing this, reanimating it, so they can fill in their own thoughts and images."

Soon after, when Ochsner and his fellow students at the Film School got an assignment to tell a personal story, he decided to pop open the whole can of worms. The result is a 10-minute film that mixes his own children's drawings with new drawings and video from an iPhone.

"I started digging into my childhood, and I found my drawings. I based the new drawings on them. I spent perhaps 30 seconds on each frame, finishing them in one go. That was my concept from the get-go, not to spend more than 30 seconds to a minute on each drawing. And I didn't allow myself to correct them later, either," he says.

"First, we see three drawings I did when I was five. My dad, me and my mother. The next shot is of a car driving. That's from an iPhone. Rain is hitting the windows, so everything is blurry."

The colours are kept in green tones, since the story is that they were riding in a green Nissan. The iPhone footage he was experimenting with matched the colour scheme, so he didn't have to add any effects.

Storyboarded With Youtube Clips 

"I did a basic template first, since I knew the story inside and out. Using YouTube clips, I worked out a film of 10 minutes and 19 seconds, which is also the final running time. That gave me an idea of what the framework could hold. I researched car accidents and ambulances and downloaded around 500 clips. I also found images of the same kind of car we were riding in, including some absurd Nissan commercials from 1989. Then I did all the drawings and put them in, and I drew on top of some of the YouTube videos, so I could use my own material and my own idea," the director says.

The YouTube clips were simply used as sketches and are no longer visible in the film.

"The film developed slowly. I wasn't 100 percent sure of how I wanted it to be. Then I started doing the voiceover, at a fairly late point. I believe all films should work first without voices added. Everything else should come after." The film's soundtrack transports the viewer back to riding in the back seat of cars as a child: the muted sound of a purring engine, shifting gears, rain on the windows, the beat of the windshield wipers. On top of that, the director relives the events as seen through the eyes of five-year-old Thor.

"The voiceover was almost the hardest thing for me to do. On the first take I broke down crying. That was the most powerful version and it made the film even tougher to watch. The version we ended up with steers a good middle course. We recorded it once the visuals were done."

Editing is Good and Well, but …

 To Ochsner, it's important to try his hand at many of the technical skills of filmmaking. For 1989, he wrote the script and did the animation, camerawork, voiceover and editing. He also devised the sound concept and added sounds, before Martin Juel Dirkov started writing the score and the sound designer Oskar Skriver took over and gave the soundtrack a boost.

Having lived most of his life abroad, Ochsner got his start in 2003 at the European Film College in Ebeltoft, where he took classes in editing. But even then he knew he wanted to work in a broader field. "I think it's a shame, really, if an art school doesn't give you the chance to try out different sides of yourself," he says. Later, he got a chance to do just that.

For a while after Ebeltoft, photography was his great passion and he spent hours in the darkroom. During a stay in Luxemburg, he was offered a position as lighting assistant at the national theatre, where he had the opportunity to do the lighting for the respected ballet choreographer Maurice Béjart. Crazy lighting, he says. The production was one of the greatest art experiences of his life. Next, Ochsner worked as an assistant editor on TV productions for a few years before applying to the editing programme at the National Film School of Denmark. There he got a chance to work on both narrative and documentary films, but he still had a desire to try other things. The short project that produced 1989 has whetted his appetite for directing. 

Getting the Film Out to People

Ochsner appreciates the free space he found at the Film School and the opportunities to test himself, though he still thinks it's important that students get a few films screened outside of the school. "It's a reality check, because you can easily get hyped in school when someone tells you you're doing fantastic work. Then you get out in the real world, and maybe you find out what you're doing doesn't work at all."

Ochsner got his chance when Jacob Jarek, a producing student at the Film School, was attached to the project. "I really didn't have any expectations other than getting my film shown at a Danish festival, but Jacob saw it and said, 'We can do better than that,' and he really pushed it to the max." The film has already outdone his early expectations. After screening at Nordic Panorama in Bergen and the Uppsala International Short Film Festival, it has moved on to the major festivals in Sundance and Rotterdam.

"Films should be seen. It's a good thing that the school gives us a free space to find things inside ourselves that we can use, making films from emotions. But a film needs something else, too, that can get it out to people," he says.

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